If Peter Ellenstein is hired as artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre, he'd want his legacy to be excellence and growth.
With quality scripts, training and outreach, the candidate said "we will connect to a greater audience, a larger audience" and perhaps make theater more important in people's lives.
Ellenstein laid out some of those ideas on Thursday during a community forum at the University of Montana's Gallagher Business Building. He's the second of two finalists for artistic director of the Repertory, a professional theater-in-residence at the University of Montana. Greg Johnson, who served in the post since 1990, is retiring at the end of the semester.
Michael Legg, the director of the Professional Training Company at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, visited campus last week and participated in a forum.
After Ellenstein's multi-day visit is over, the UM search committee will evaluate "the strengths and weaknesses" of the candidates and make a recommendation to Mike Monsos, director of the School of Theatre & Dance. He'll in turn forward it to Stephen Kalm, the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. He'll send his final determination to the provost. Kalm said the decision could be final within several weeks' time.
The Rep's artistic director oversees the company's national tour. During Johnson's tenure, it honed a reputation for telling "great American stories" from the 20th century, with quality sets and acting. The Rep also produces an annual Educational Outreach Tour, which travels to schools around the state, and the annual Colony, a summer playwrights' gathering held at UM each spring.
The new director will also teach one or two courses during the academic year. The exact courses will depend on their areas of interest and expertise.
Ellenstein said he's comfortable teaching "any classes in which the students are motivated," including all levels of acting, although he doesn't consider himself a playwriting instructor. He is a member of the Actors Equity Association and the Dramatists Guild.
He said his favorite plays depend on the week, but offered "Hamlet" and Clifford Odets. He loves working on new plays and scripts that examine the current events, but not outright political plays. He likes most styles of theater, from light musical comedy, children's work to "disturbing drama."
"What I care about is that it's done excellently and keeps me captivated the whole time and that it leaves the audience larger, not smaller," he said.
Most recently, Ellenstein was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Miami from 2015-16. Before that, he was the director of theater and an instructor at the William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College in Kansas from 2001 to 2014.
Ellenstein opened the forum at UM with a PowerPoint presentation, including some quotes from John Steinbeck about the beauty of Montana, and then a quick run through his background.
Ellenstein joked that he was "brought up in a trunk" in a theater family and was surrounded by passionate artists from a young age. His father, Robert Ellenstein, was an actor in theater, film and television in New York and Los Angeles.
After high school, he went directly into acting and soon transitioned into producing and directing. On stage, he noticed he was more focused on the overall scene than his own performance.
He started an independent troupe, the Los Angeles Repertory Company, which he led from 1992 to 1999, producing and directing. It also included a play development program and public readings. After feeling burnt out, he enrolled in graduate school in his 30s. He wanted to combine his love of academic theater with the entrepreneurship and mentorship of professional theater.
After finishing his degree, he moved to Independence, Kansas, where there was a "remarkable" four-day event called the William Inge Theatre Festival "that no one had heard of," yet drew visiting playwrights like Stephen Sondheim.
As director of theater and an instructor at the festival, he worked with national playwrights and actors and directors. He also oversaw artistic residency programs that brought theater into schools, which he thinks could have applications with the Colony here in Missoula.
Ellenstein was with the Inge Center until a new president was brought in and he was fired. He is now looking for his next step. This is his first trip to Montana.
Regarding the tour, Ellenstein said that he'd like to "wildly expand" it, possibly by touring to U.S. military bases, a la Missoula Children's Theatre. Regarding its creative direction, Ellenstein said that play choices, theatrical training, outreach and quality will help build an audience.
During the Q&A, Rosie Seitz Ayers, a local director and actor, said that theater is "especially challenged" in rural states like Montana when it comes to gender equality and diversity and asked Ellenstein for his ideas.
He replied that "slow change" is happening in society and in the case of the theater he thinks it's a "delicate balance" because they must serve the general public.
It could mean producing more challenging scripts in smaller spaces that aren't dependent on the box office like the Rep and UM main-stage productions.
"It is incumbent on us as artists to push forward, but it's also incumbent that we maintain the means in which to keep pushing forward," he said. In Kansas, he said boundary-challenging plays were accompanied by plenty of explanation to the audience in order to not alienate them. He cited "The Laramie Project" as an example of a play that invited general audiences to reconsider their biases.
From his time in Kansas, Ellenstein offered some ideas for outreach between the Rep and the local community, while cautioning that ideas are just ideas until you find space and funding.
They placed guest artists in people's homes, which cultivated a "unique relationship between the artist and the people that housed them that often lasted far past the residency." He thinks the Colony and the Rep could include several residencies throughout the year that include local productions, classes and readings.
He also suggested a volunteer organization, whose members could help with ushering, soliciting ads, general community ambassadorship and building "town-and-gown" relationships.
He said 24-hour play events, in which professionals and students build a play from scratch in a day, were successful as an artistic shot for the adults and helped recruit students for the college.
He floated the idea of partnerships with MCT Inc., which has a touring children's theater and a community theater, and other local organizations in town.
"There's a lot of upside potential for both doing joint fundraising and joint programming," he said.
Setting up a separate nonprofit arm could allow more access to grants and donations than currently allowed, he said.
He suggested a steering committee comprising members of the community, the campus and potentially donors. It could give input into how to launch programs in the city as a whole and create some "ownership" in the Rep among local residents. He said a similar program in Kansas gave him criticism and feedback that people wouldn't offer him directly and that he could then work to resolve.